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Volatile Substances. Volatile Substances. Commonly referred to as ‘inhalants’, ‘solvents’, ‘solvent based products’ Common terms include ‘chroming’, ‘huffing’, ‘sniffing’, ‘bagging’

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Volatile substances1
Volatile Substances

  • Commonly referred to as ‘inhalants’,

    ‘solvents’, ‘solvent based products’

  • Common terms include ‘chroming’,

    ‘huffing’, ‘sniffing’, ‘bagging’

  • Comprise a group of chemical compounds that change from a liquid or semi-solid to gaseous state when exposed to air

  • Inhalation of the vapour through the mouth or nose produces a psychoactive effect (intoxication and euphoria).

What substances are used
What Substances are Used?

  • Inhalants are found in hundreds of products at supermarkets, newsagencies, hardware stores and industrial sites

  • 4 categories of inhalants:

    • Solvents

    • Aerosols

    • Gases

    • Nitrites.


  • High lipid solubility promotes rapid absorption from the lungs

  • Acute intoxication occurs after 3–5 minutes (10–15 breaths are sufficient)

  • Peak plasma concentration reached in 15–30 minutes

  • Half-life varies from hours to days

  • Metabolised in kidneys and liver

  • Accumulate in lipid rich organs (i.e. liver, brain)

  • Crosses placental barrier.

Appeal of volatile substances
Appeal of Volatile Substances

  • Inexpensive

  • Readily available despite legislation precluding sale to minors

  • Can be packaged in small discrete containers

  • Create both rapid intoxication, and rapid resolution of intoxication (can use and still return home sober).

Who inhales
Who Inhales?

Lack of good epidemiological data, however:

  • highest prevalence amongst 14–17 year olds (c.f. older adults)

  • a small percentage try, but most cease use after a few attempts

  • primarily a short-term, experimental activity by young males (female use is increasing)

  • recreational users tend to combine solvents and cannabis with ecstasy, speed or LSD

  • not restricted to Indigenous communities, but Indigenous youth (compared with non-Indigenous) tend to:

    • show greater habitual use

    • use more frequently

    • use over a longer period

  • use of solvents is of national and international concern.

Why use volatile substances
Why Use Volatile Substances?

  • “Because its fun and exciting”

  • “I like the way it makes me feel – I feel drunk”

  • “It takes away my bad feelings”

  • “I wanted to be part of the gang”

  • “My brothers were doing it so I wanted to try it”

  • “Because I want to do something my parents don’t like”

  • “Because it’s easy to get and I’m not allowed to get grog”

ADAC (2000, p. 8)

Patterns and methods of use
Patterns and Methods of Use

3 major patterns of use:

  • experimental / occasional

  • social

  • long-term dependent / chronic.

    Methods of use:

  • sniffing

  • huffing

  • bagging.

Factors influencing effects
Factors Influencing Effects

Type of Product

Environment(method of administratione.g. inhaling, direct spraying)

Individual (gender, age)

Cues for detecting recent use
Cues for Detecting Recent Use

  • Red, watery eyes

  • Sneezing & coughing (URTI-like symptoms)

  • Chemical smell or odour on breath

  • Glue, solvent or paint stains on clothing, fingers, nose or mouth

  • Apparent intoxication / altered behaviour / risk taking

  • Incoherence, confusion

  • Poor coordination

  • Excessive sweating

  • Unusual spots, marks, rashes and sores around nose and mouth

  • Excessive nasal secretions, constantly sniffing.

Gp s role
GP’s Role

  • Presentations specifically for volatile use are unlikely

  • Presentations from a parent concerned about associated behaviours or health problems are more likely

  • Scope for GP to provide effective intervention, counselling, brief intervention and provide harm reduction strategies.

    The credibility and impact of GP messages to young people should not be underestimated.

Effects short term

Desired effects




Sense of invulnerability


Effects at high doses

Slurred speech

Poor coordination

Disorientation, confusion




Visual distortions or hallucinations

Unpredictable behaviour, then:



final stages (seizures, coma cardiopulmonary arrest, death).

Effects – Short Term

Negative acute / short-term effects


‘Flu-like’ symptoms

Nausea and vomiting


Diarrhoea, abdominal pain

Unpleasant breath

Nosebleeds and sores

Reckless behaviour.


High doses place user at risk of:

  • convulsions, seizures, coma

  • respiratory depression

  • cardiac arrhythmias.

    Injury or death occur from:

  • risk-taking behaviour (drowning, falls)

  • suffocation

  • aspiration of vomit

  • burns (explosions)

  • poisoning and chronic organ failure (long-term use)

  • laryngeal spasm (with butane), respiratory arrest.

    Petrol sniffing may result in lead poisoning.

Tolerance and dependence
Tolerance and Dependence

  • Tolerance develops rapidly with regular use

  • Psychologicaland physical dependence, while rare, may also occur.


  • Onset and duration

    • not classified in DSM IV but features of possible ‘withdrawal syndrome’ may commence 24-48 hours after cessation of use

  • Withdrawal Symptoms

    • sleep disturbances

    • tremor

    • irritability and depression

    • nausea

    • diaphoresis

    • fleeting illusions

  • Treatment

    • symptomatic.

Problems with long term use
Problems with Long-term Use

  • Patients may present with a variety of symptoms as a consequence of long-term use, including:

    • chronic headache

    • sinusitis, nosebleeds, increased nasal secretions

    • diminished cognitive function

    • ataxia

    • chronic coughing

    • chest pain or angina

    • tinnitus

    • extreme tiredness, weakness, dizziness

    • depression / anxiety

    • shortness of breath

    • indigestion

    • stomach ulcers.

Complications from long term use

CNS complications

acute encephalopathy

chronic neurological deficits

memory, thinking

hearing loss, and loss of sense of smell


motor impairment esp. secondary to lead poisoning

peripheral nerve damage.

Other systems

Renal – nephrolithiasis, glomerulopathies

Hepatic–reversible hepatotoxicity

Pulmonary–e.g. pulmonary hypertension, acute respiratory distress

Cardiovascular –e.g. VF, arrhythmias, acute cardiomyopathy

Haematological–e.g. blood dyscrasias.

Complications from Long-term Use


  • Use of volatile substances (as with use of other psychoactive drugs) impacts not only on personal health but on:

    • families and the community

    • workplace safety

    • community (e.g. anti-social behaviour).

Responding to intoxication
Responding to Intoxication

  • Ensure fresh air

  • Be calm, and calming

  • Don’t chase, argue, use force

  • Persuade to cease sniffing (if able to understand)

  • Provide safe environment

  • Take person to a safe environment

  • Don’t attempt to counsel while intoxicated

  • Follow-up with parents

  • If drowsy or heavily intoxicated

    • consider the best environment for the individual and monitor physical and mental health.


  • Brief Intervention

  • Harm Reduction

  • Counselling

  • Group counselling

  • Family support and counselling

  • Be involved in developing community responses (e.g. Drug Action Teams).

    Avoid GP lectures to school/youth groups – evidence suggests it may increase curiosity and level of use.

Community responses

reducing availability

providing more youth activities

information & education

family support.

punishing ‘sniffers’

making sniffing illegal within communities

policing and Drug Action Teams

night patrols



Community Responses

Various community responses to address the issue of inhaling volatile substances tried including: